Cowboys@Packers: Preview & Prediction
The most exciting game of the weekend, where I’m concerned anyway, is Sunday’s encounter between the team I backed at the start of the season to win it all, and the team I said had no chance of making the postseason. It shouldn’t be too hard to work out which way round. I am happy to say that where the Packers are concerned, they are still very much one of the favourites to achieve their 2nd Super Bowl appearance in the last 5 years, and slightly less happy (after they made my pre-season thoughts look rather foolish) to admit that the Cowboys have more than just a prayer of returning to Arizona for their first Super Bowl since 1996.
First, before I get into this any further, I want to stress that everything I write from here on out is based on the assumption that Aaron Rodgers will be fully fit on Sunday. If he isn’t, and Matt Flynn either starts (God forbid) or comes into the game with any less than a 21 point lead in the 3rd quarter, the following careful ponderings will be rendered essentially worthless. (Even more so than usual).
The Dallas Cowboys, far from swatting up on their early draft selections and scrambling around desperately for a new head coach, quarterback and defence as I predicted they would be by this time of the year, instead make their way to ‘The Frozen Tundra’ with a swagger borne from an completing an undefeated season on the road. This is undoubtedly a sterling achievement, even if (being pedantic) their road schedule, excluding Seattle and perhaps at a push, Philadelphia, was filled with some pretty ghastly teams. Still, they had to win those games, and I give them a huge amount of credit for that, especially for the manner in which they accomplished it, outscoring their opponents by a prodigious margin of 275 to 181 over the 8 games. Averaging just over 34 points per game away from home over the course of an NFL season is nothing to be sniffed at, and it is this ability to score on the road that accentuates their real hope of winning this week in Lambeau Field.
For all the power and skill that has defined the Cowboys season to date, this week they face a team who, at home, are simply imperious. Green Bay are undefeated at Lambeau this season, and have outscored their opponents by a fearsome total of 318 to 163. These 8 games include visits from 3 playoff teams (Patriots, Lions and Panthers) plus the Eagles, which lends extra credence in my mind to their accomplishment.
Aaron Rodgers is more comfortable at home than possibly any player I’ve ever seen, and with victory over the Lions in week 17, he increased his streak of home games without an interception to 16. Since he last threw a pick at home, (against Minnesota on December 2nd 2012) he has completed 298 of 471 passes for 65 touchdowns, and this season has the highest single season passer rating at home in NFL history. Let’s be clear, for Dallas to win this week they will either need to score a hell of a lot of points, because (as long as Rodgers stays healthy), I cannot for the life of me work out how they can possibly hold onto the home team’s tail, or they will have to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field for an exorbitant amount of time, using DeMarco Murray and their stout rushing attack to shorten the game.
The fact that Rodgers doesn’t give away possessions is a key factor for me, but to be fair, Dallas do create turnovers. They have forced the 2nd most of any team this season behind Houston, so one would figure that if anyone can do it would be them. Still, I just don’t trust their secondary against the Packers’ phenomenal receiving corp. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb get a huge amount of yards after the catch, with 603 and 558 respectively, only 3 receivers in the NFL (Golden Tate 709, Demarius Thomas 668 and Antonio Brown 615) have more this season, and I fully expect them to torch the Cowboys early and often. In addition to Cobb and Nelson, Eddie Lacy provides an excellent option out of the backfield, both on the ground and also in the passing game. In addition to his 1,140 rushing yards, Lacy has caught for a further 427 and has 4 receiving touchdowns this year.
I love the edge that Green Bay have when it comes to the hugely significant 3rd down play. Rodgers has been the best quarterback in the league at converting on 3rd downs, completing 82 of 137 passes with the drive on the line. In sharp contrast, the Dallas defence has been less than impressive forcing opposing teams off the field, ranking 27th in the league on 3rd down. As I previously said, one of the absolute keys to a victory for ‘America’s team’ is to keep Rodgers huddled on the sideline for as long as possible, and if they allow him to extend drives on 3rd down, I’m certain they will regret it.
The Cowboys will be well aware of the threat posed by Green Bay’s offense, but they will be confident themselves of gaining plenty of yards both on the ground and through the air. DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing yards this season with 1,845, and he has arguably the best offensive line in football creating gaps for him, but the Packers have not given up 100 yards to a running back since Mark Ingram roasted them for 175 yards back in week 8, so this will certainly be one of the most intriguing sub-plots of the game.
Dallas’ passing game is superb, and Tony Romo comes into this week with a passer rating of 113.2, the best in the NFL this season. Green Bay do not have a pass rush close to what the Cowboys faced last week against Detroit, and if Romo has time in the pocket he can certainly make the Packers’ secondary pay.
We have seen many times this season that facing Green Bay at Lambeau can be likened to walking into a rather large green and gold explosion. The Packers can pile up points quicker than a hiccup, and if Dallas start sluggishly and allow them to get on top early, much like they did the Lions last week, they could find themselves at the bottom of a frigid hole with no way out. They certainly won’t be thrown a rope ladder by the officials this week…
Cowboys 26 – 41 Packers
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